Objectifying women used to be so easy. "Are you a boobs man or a bum man?" your shitty bloke mates would ask. Nowadays, thanks to video games, there's a whole host of other things to think about, such as whether you like your potential lovers sentient or not, at least according to an article that appeared on the Guardian's website on Tuesday (April 14th).
Never before has a headline begun with such reasonable intentions – "Video games need fewer 'sexy' women" – only to devolve into such nonsense: "and more you can actually fancy". I am in awe at this sentence. This sentence is the greatest roller coaster ride of all time. This sentence says so much about so little, or so little about so much, I don't know. All I know is that I love this sentence.
And in the standfirst, the sheer joy exuded continues: "I'm spoiled for choice when it comes to digital crushes, but there's little out there for my boyfriend – and that makes games worse for him." I try to assure myself that perhaps the writer, Holly Nielsen, is a mere victim of overzealous sub-editing, vowing to do the decent thing and read her words in their entirety but, oh, hey, look! The main body is totally batshit too.
"Those of us attracted to men have a fairly varied selection of looks and personalities to choose from in video games," she writes, adding: "But if you're interested in women who offer more than titillation [in video games], the search is more trying [in video games]". And it's hard to emphasise enough that she is, in fact, talking about the attraction by humans to fictional characters formed of pixels and lines of code. You see, there are Quite A Few Problems with this.
For starters, if you're interested in women (or men, for that matter) who offer more than titillation, a good first port of call might be the realm of consciousness in which our physical and mental beings exist, you know, humanity and that. She makes the point that scantily clad female characters are "an unavoidable and often embarrassing part of the hobby", which I would not for a second dispute. The gaming world, as Gamergate highlighted, is riddled with casual sexism (and brutal misogyny), and this definitely needs to be tackled – but you can do away with the physical objectification without adding a clause that's so fucking bizarre.
Nielsen continues: "There is just this enormous gap between physical attraction and emotional connection that game designers are still having trouble navigating," because clearly drawing a woman in a bikini requires roughly equal effort to building a bot with fully functional artificial intelligence and emotional capability. "Feeling true love for a fictional character is not a thing we'll all admit to experiencing... but when it happens it involves something more than beauty." Let's just pause to think about this for a moment, shall we? Feeling true love for a fictional character is not a thing we'll all admit to experiencing, because it's crazy. You can identify with them or feel some sense of empathy towards their story, but you can't truly love something that isn't real. That's not how true love works.
I don't necessarily think "sexy" characters are a good thing (and there are plenty of conversations about sexism to be had) but it does seem less weird to include physically attractive characters than characters with emotional depth. Think of it like porn. Porn is something to which I have no moral objections – consenting adults doing whatever they wish with their bodies for the entertainment of other consenting adults is not an issue that really needs much debate as far as I'm concerned. The problem with porn, though, is when you're unable to separate it from the reality of sex, and a sex life that's informed entirely by an adolescence spent in incognito mode risks being unsatisfying.
Watch porn and enjoy it by all means, but you can't expect to form a serious emotional attachment with the actors. Occasionally people do, as with non-pornographic film stars, and their obsession becomes something terrifying or even deadly, leading to stalking or other disturbing behaviours. So the idea that someone could find their gaming experience diminished by a lack of emotionally available characters is really quite horrific in that respect.
The thing about video games is that they're generally designed as a means of escaping reality, not as an extension to it. This is the plot of countless old dystopian sci-fi stories that warned of us becoming too attached to technology to the point where it takes the place of roles that only humans can truly fulfil. It's the basis of Spike Jonze's last film Her, which is clear with its idea that you can't have a meaningful relationship with a computer, even the most advanced AI, in the same way you can with a human.
When Nielsen's boyfriend tells her that he's not attracted to any of these fleshy piles of polygons, is there not a fairly strong chance this is founded in an ability to distinguish reality from fantasy? Maybe I'm somehow missing the point of gaming, but it does seem like not having characters a man can truly be in love with in a world which requires a constant suspension of disbelief is probably not an issue that really needs addressing.
Video games don't owe men anything. And they sure as hell don't require emotionally rounded and responsive characters because, again: They. Are. Not. Real. They are toys. Very advanced toys, very complex toys, but at the end of the day, they are there for us to play. Not to love us, not to understand us, but to entertain us. And anything more than that is just really fucking weird, folks.